A Versatile Career
"You can manipulate a medium we live with — light — and reveal a story. You can take a picture or a stage setting or two actors and dialogue, and you add light, which can come from all different directions, and somehow you make the story come alive."—Jules Fisher
The Fisher Method: The Unknown Soldier and His Wife
Taking Creative License: Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar
Involvement in Film Lighting: A Star is Born
Once Fisher was asked to teach at NYU and The New School, his career began to accelerate even further. Teaching allowed him to grow as an artist, but he would never stop critiquing himself in the process. About teaching, he says:
“Every class allowed me to question anew why I was saying to use a specific color or to use certain equipment to light a cyc. I think that to be a good teacher you have to keep asking yourself “why” and not to do it by rote. I just never had as much time as I wanted to prepare.”
Thus, Fisher's desire to be as thorough with his teaching as his lighting design was apparent, but he did not stop his work in Broadway at the time. In fact, because he had gained respect in the accademic realm, Fisher's rise in Broadway was accelerated.
After experiencing some setbacks with some difficult Broadway shows, Fisher had to develop a technique to help ensure success in his work. In an article Fisher wrote, entitled, "Lighting The Unknown Soldier and His Wife" in the 1967 issue of Theatre Crafts, Fisher reveals four major insights in his work, summarized below:
He appreciates working with a good director, even if the director is difficult to work with.
He takes advantage of the theater he's working in, allowing its particular spatial features to give meaning to light, and for light to give meaning to it as it relates to the play itself. A thrust in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre extended the stage far into the audience, allowing light to gain more meaning in the production.
He takes advantage of the setting he's given. For example, in The Unkown Soldier, he established subtly in lighting despite floor patterns created by actors and light.
He discusses how he plans to experiment with and re-work a scene, and convinces other members of the creative team to do the same. He collaborates across disciplines in theater in order to reach a common goal of all theater professionals: to put on a high quality production.
"The show was a chance for me to do anything. I could just invent things."—Jules Fisher on Hair
"I was watching from stage left during a moment when Gwen Verdon sat and did a monologue towards the end of the show. She had a bouquet of red roses on her lap. I was watching and on the floor I saw a little red glow filling in the shadow of the roses. That was when I realized that Jules was not just a great lighting designer but he was a painter of light. I thought it was so poetic, and it was an awakening to see someone that was beyong just lighting a set and the actors and keepingg the vision of the director. Jules painted the stage and I think that was when I fell madly in love with him."—Graciela Fisher, Jules' wife
Both Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar covered controversial topics, which initially made Jules Fisher feel slightly uneasy. Fisher comments on the beginning of his work on Hair:
"I was doing so many orthodox plays and musicals. In a strange way I was the more traditional person on the show. For me, it was a bizarre position to be in."
Jules Fisher would soon realize that Hair gave him the opportunity to express his own creativity, a creativity that was often stifled by Sondheim's design team during his earlier years on Broadway. By being exposed to such a play with both avante garde set design and theatrical content, Fisher reflects on Hair as an experience that helped him ease out of his comfort zone as an artist.
Similar to Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar also contained controversial content. However, unlike Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar was not as well received. Though Fisher used an inventive lighting design using lasers and projections for the Crucifixion scene, a critic commented, "The total effect is brilliant but cheap—like the Christmas decorations of a chic Fifth Avenue store."
Another difference between Hair and Superstar was that Superstar's lighting was done differently each time, because the production itself was different each time. Fisher, as a result learned how to become even more versatle as a designer through his experience with Superstar, regardless of its reviews.
Bob Fosse was a director with whom Jules Fisher had previously worked with on Pippin. Fisher had always found Fosse to be a very particular. For Chicago, he requested that the lighting not look "pretty." He wanted the lighting to have a stark quality, almost like that of a Brechtian piece. This posed an issue for Fisher since there were not substantial scene changes. Fisher worked with Fosse's vision, but was not afraid to incorporate his own vision of what the lighting should be like. This vision is reflected in the quote above from Jules wife. Despite the starkness of the production and despite Fosse's demands, Fisher introduced a subtle softness through inclusion of the red glow that Graciela describes. Therefore, Fisher did not always need a cooperative director to express his creative vision in his designs.
"One of the things that I liked so much about working in film is that they take the time and the money to make every moment perfect. We can't always do that in the theatre. We can't afford it."—Jules Fisher
Fisher would apply theatrical lighting techniques to film, a choice that would ultimately lead to transformations in film lighting over time. Because Fisher was a shy person and tended to avoid conflict, he feared having to confront the cinematographer to clarify that he no threat to his job. Fisher was first and foremost a professional, however, so he ultimately mustered the courage to approach the cinematographer on A Star is Born, saying:
"I don't know how to light movies so I'm not a threat. I'm not here to take your job. I will light the number, the moment, the piece, whatever it is I am asked to do as if it was the theatre. You have to balance the light. You have to tell me if I have too much front light or too much backlight so it will look good on film. I am here to serve you."
Fisher's statements not only highlight his professionalism and dedication, but once again demonstrates his ability to reach out to other artists in order to achieve a common goal. He would later work on lighting in several films, including the film rendition of Chicago.
Revolutionizing Lighting Design: La Cage Aux Folles
During his work on the show La Cage Aux Folles, Fisher made a significant invention that would revolutionize lighting design: the low-voltage ministrip. Prior to the existence of the low voltage-ministrip, all available strip lights were too big to be concealed. The ministrips allowed the source of the light to be concealed, thus allowing for enhanced subtly and sleekness in lighting design. Light was present, but audiences could instead visualize the image before them onstage as an image of reality in which light existed as a presence onstage, rather than become distracted by the presence of bulky lights.
Unruh, Delbert, and John Lahr. Jules Fisher. Syracuse, NY: United States Institute of Theatre Technology, 2009. Print.